After a perfect week of awesome, what could ever go wrong, right? Right?
During the week I had told someone that I would have hated to go second, because I’d rather go first and be done with it, or go last and sit through it somewhere else. I forgot that Zack was there, so of course I was going to go second by default.
The theme was announced and it was “intimacy”. I loved it. Except I was told I had to shoot two people I had never met or talked to, and there could be no physical contact. And then of course I hated it.
It’s a great concept, one I’d love to shoot: in a room, alone with two people.
I can work very fast, but I usually need a lot of time to plan or a willing subject in front of me: I need to connect on some sort of level and I’ve never had to shoot someone who didn’t explicitly asked me to be photographed, for such a short amount of time. I need to talk to people and know what they do and let them know that I have their back. I need to take half an hour to just shoot photos I know I’ll never use or show, not even to them, just because I need them to get used to the camera and the lights and relax. I need time and silence and I knew I’d have none.
I knew I would struggle before I started, but that’s part of the beauty of the Shootout.
I picked my subjects feeling sorry for them, because I, at least, already knew I would be thrown into this situation, they totally didn’t and I think their hearts were racing probably more than mine.
I decided to pick two women and I was told by some that it might have looked like some sort of gutsy political statement, but even though I strongly believe that people have the right to choose who they love, I never even thought about the implications. To me intimacy has never been about lust, or sexual tension: to me intimacy has something to do with presence, understanding and the ability to connect. Other than Alessandro, the people who can read into my soul and make me feel understood are all women.
Here’s my very first mistake of the night, which I realized I had done the second I chose my first subject: I should have asked if the person sitting next to her was a friend or her boyfriend and used him as a second subject. Even better: I should have asked if there was a couple in the room, or two friends, or two siblings willing to volunteer. This would have made things so much easier for them. Nobody said that the two people needed to be strangers to each others and I just assumed they had to be. I was making things unnecessarily harder for myself too.
I resented the idea that I was forced to put people through this, but I should have just snapped out of it and realized that maybe someone was just willing to to it for me.
Thankfully my two subjects (whose names I couldn’t spell to save my life, so I shall not even try to write here) were willing to do their best to help me through this. I am so thankful to them (If by any chance you are reading this: thank you thank you thank you and sorry for dragging you on stage. Contact me and we’ll arrange for a proper photo shoot where we all have fun and I’ll bring cake).
My very first idea was to have them lying on the ground, and have them almost touching, with their eyes closed and then print the photo and use a piece of red string to connect them. I ditched it because I thought it would be too similar in process to last year’s shootout. Then I thought I would photograph them separately and stitched two prints together, but this would have meant leaving them to the side for the most part, without creating any real intimacy, and I thought it would have been like cheating.
This was my second mistake, that I repeated over and over: I kept second guessing myself and thinking that what I normally do wasn’t good enough.
At this point I was trying to think of some sort of background for them which wouldn’t be a seamless and when one of the girls told me she was a fashion designer I decided to go with some of the fabric I had left from my workshops.
I used the same fabric as a blanket to envelop them, mostly because I wanted to create some sort of cocoon for them and to take away any visual distraction and make the photo about their faces only.
I shot the first shot with my camera still in manual focus and it was completely out of focus and I loved it. My instinct was to ask the girl on the right to almost touch the face of the girl on the left with one hand and then just spend the rest of the time sitting on the floor chatting about girl stuff.
Again, I ignored what I liked and went for something I thought I was supposed to do, which is so strange for me. At this point I was more or less in drone mode.
I decided to try to get a very minimal image that I would have printed and used white paint to cover it almost completely, leaving a hint of the image coming through the thin paint. I needed to get rid of most shadows for it to work and I needed the background to be as uniform as possible, so I moved the light to the front to flatten everything out and make it graphic.
I asked them to close their eyes and then told them when to open them, because I knew that at least for a fraction of a second they would look at each other, forgetting about everything else that was going on in the background. Each time people laughed for something Zack or David said, I could see them tensing up, but they were great and after the first couple of shots, they started to get more comfortable with each other.
During my workshop I always tell my students that they can have a good time and chat while I shoot, but that if I hear them laughing I will kick them out of the set, because it makes the subject feel like they are laughing at them. I probably should have just taken them behind the curtains and left 400 people with only my voice and the screen to keep them company.
When I printed the image and reached to my suitcase I had a surprise: there was no paint.
We were coming straight from our mixed media class and I realized that the paint was still in the class and we wouldn’t have time to go get it. Which meant I knew I was left with a flat image and less than 4 minutes.
I saw a white flower that had been used by one of the students and thought that I could try and reference the background. The proportion were off, so I decided to go with the photo as it was, knowing the light was flat and boring. Ale misunderstood me saying “I prefer the one without the flower” and so this was the one who were showed during voting, but I didn’t think to correct it, at that point. There was no point: I had failed.
It’s not the worst shot I ever took in my whole life (as I thought as I was stepping out of the stage), and I could blame it of being exhausted, on the nerves, on the missing paint, on having to photograph unwilling strangers in a very short period for the first time, but the truth is that as a photographer these are only excuses: it’s not in the picture. There was a photo there, and I let it slip away and I felt shame washing over me and burning inside. I wanted to run and hide.
It’s not the first time it happened to me and it won’t be the last, it usually doesn’t happen when there are 400 people watching and cameras filming. It usually doesn’t happen when people you respect and love expect you to do great and you fall short.
What I found extremely interesting is that there is no real protocol for failure: I could see in other people’s faces that they were aware of what happened and I could see that they didn’t know how to behave. Consoling me would have meant admitting it was a mess, thus hurting me; but ignoring it and telling me I did a great job would have meant bullshitting me, thus hurting me more.
So I smiled and then had a good cry in my hotel room, I slept badly and then I came up with a plan, because anything is bearable if I make it into a photographic project.
Here’s what we do now.
Over the next year I want to take portraits of people using the same fabric and a similar concept. I will shoot anyone who is willing to sit in front of my camera and talk about failure and shame. I will shoot friends, family members, complete strangers. I will keep your secrets, but I’ll try to write at least a sentence for each photo, hoping that each story, each person, each session will shine some light into this weird feeling we share but never really talk about.
Here’s a quick sketch of what I have in mind, but I’m still figuring it out.
I will take the fabric with me everywhere I go and I will also use it to take a series of environmental self portraits in which the fabric somehow appears in the frame, but is not as prominent. I expect it will be washed a bazillion times and fade a bit, I’m fine with that. The romantic in me would want it to work to the point the fabric comes undone and fades into nothing, but the practical me will probably just saw a dress when one year has passed and I will call it “my failure dress” and wear it to weddings with the same badass attitude I’m sure the ancient mariner wore the albatross around his neck. Practical me is still a bit of a drama queen, you might have noticed.
That Shootout photo is now the beginning of something that excites me and has the potential to be really good, which is why it now sits on my desk: a reminder to look closely, to go deeper, to follow my instincts and to get better.
The first two years I came back home from GPP and quit photography. This year I got my butt kicked and came home with a long term project I’m excited to work on. One way or another, GPP has always something to do with me growing as a photographer.